Witches in the Origins of Folklore, Mythology, and Horror

Chloé Germaine Buckley
Chloé Germaine Buckley

Contemporary cinematic depictions of the witch acknowledge a much older stereotype, one that emerged in Early Modern Europe. As Ronald Hutton’s historical study shows, the witch trials of this period created an enduring stereotype: the cannibalistic, murderous and satanic witch (2017).

This stereotype emerged from the blending of multiple belief systems and myths, creating an image that spread geographically and endured through the ages. Hutton remarks, “across the world, witches have been regarded with loathing and horror, and associated with generally antisocial attitudes and with evil forces” (2017: 21).

The witch of horror cinema echoes many of the facets of this early stereotype. Hutton’s analysis of documents from the earliest witch trials, which occurred between 1426 and 1448, reveal elements that endure in the stereotype of the witch to this day: the theft and murder of infants; the use of poisons and potions to kill adults; the ability to enter a home through closed doors and windows; gaining access to homes in the form of animals; sucking the blood or eating the flesh of infants; anointing themselves or their brooms with the blood or flesh of infants to achieve flight; and riding demons in the form of animals (Hutton 2017: 170-1).

These elements of the stereotype were strengthened by confessions extracted under torture, and were then exported, through written accounts and folklore, to other regions where similar ideas and a disposition to use the figure of the witch as a scapegoat already existed. The stereotype that crystallized during this Early Modern period in Europe comprised a new synthesis of older elements — some of which dated back to classical myth — but it was presented as “one known since ancient times” (Hutton 2017: 181).

In cinema, the resurgence of a threat from “ancient times” is key to the folk horror genre. Adam Scovell’s formulation of folk horror suggests the genre combines a terrifying treatment of landscape with a sense of isolation, from which develops a skewed belief system or moral code (2017: 17-19).

In early examples such as ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, Scovell suggests that folk horror depicts a violent resurgence of misogynist superstitions in its evocation of witchcraft in the seventeenth-century. Though Scovell argues that films like ‘Witchfinder General’ confront viewers with the misogyny of their folkloric traditions, such misogyny is also shown to be based in “truth”.

In ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, for example, the evil force is uncovered from within the landscape, taking possession of the female character, Angel Blake. Here, the evil associated with witchcraft appears in the narrative as essential, not discursively constructed (19, 24).

In Eggers’ United States revision of the folk horror genre, evil again emerges from the landscape, from deep within the ancient woods that Puritan settlers cannot tame. This appeal to Puritan mythology evokes a gendered nature/culture divide foundational to Western thought, and in so doing, gestures to a misogynist figuration of the “female grotesque” identified by Russo. Russo argues that the witch or crone is one example of a grotesque aesthetic that draws on “archaic tropes” of the natural, “primal” female body and thus places terror and revulsion “on the side of the feminine” (1994: 2-3).

Such representations of a misogynist female grotesque can be seen in depictions of witchcraft outside folk horror, too. For example, Creed argues that ‘Carrie’ (1976) links menstrual blood to the possession of supernatural powers, asserting that the film “plays on the debase the meaning of […] blood in order to horrify modern audiences; in so doing it also perpetuates negative views about women and menstruation” (1993: 79-80).

Though many have repurposed Creed’s “monstrous feminine” as a feminist concept, Creed asserts that the association of woman with the abject is “a construct of patriarchal ideology” and that the “monstrous” woman of the horror film is “a function of the ideological project […] designed to perpetuate the belief that woman’s monstrous nature is inextricably bound up with her difference as man’s sexual other” (83).

Russo offers a similar warning about the image of the “female grotesque”. Though it has feminist potential, evocations of the female grotesque can all too easily slide into misogyny in their association of “woman” with the “visceral detritus of the body” (1994: 2). Berenstein, too, notes a reinforcement of the patriarchal culture/nature divide in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1990: 63). Though not folk horror, this film draws directly on Early Modern material, including the Compendium Maleficarium (1626), in its depiction of the older woman, Minnie Castavet, as a witch-cum-midwife, laughable as well as horrifying in her grotesquerie. Ultimately, though, Minnie transfers her power to the male members of the coven, her nefarious skills in herblore surpassed by a satanic physician posing as Rosemary’s doctor.

The power shifts in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ highlight the gendered nature of witch stereotypes dating to the Early Modern period. The male “witches” in the film, including Dr Sapirstein and Adrian Mercado, evoke the image of the ceremonial magician, which was distinct from and developed along a different trajectory to the stereotype of the satanic witch (Hutton 2017: 74-95).

Norman Cohn likewise suggests that “ceremonial magic had nothing to do with witchcraft because the former was mostly the preserve of men, who sought to control demons, while the latter was mostly that of women, who were servants and allies to them” (1993: 102). This gendered distinction in the cultural figuration of the witch works to undercut notions of empowerment. Thus, both mainstream horror and folk horror draw and also develop the Early Modern stereotype of the witch through figurations scholars have variously identified as the “monstrous feminine” and “female grotesque”, developing a clearly gendered representation emphasizing woman’s otherness.

Feminist revisions of the Early Modern witch myth have also informed horror cinema, notably Robin Hardy’s ‘The Wicker Man’. Yet these feminist revisions are themselves fraught with ambiguities. The ‘Wicker Man’, for example, plays with the revisionist idea that persecuted witches were not followers of Satan, but worshippers of an ancient, female-centric pagan religion.

The film’s anti-hero, Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee as a sympathetic and charismatic version of Adrian Mercado, joyfully resurrects what he calls the “old ways”. This idea owes much to Margaret Murray’s now debunked 1921 study, ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’, though it falls short of her vision of an ancient matriarchal society.

First-wave feminist Murray argued that the Early Modern trials targeted practitioners of an ancient matriarchal fertility religion that predated Christianity. The idea inspired revisionist witch myths at the heart of modern-day “Wicca” and other forms of neo-paganism that emerged in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Gerald Gardner evokes Murray in ‘Witchcraft Today’ (1954), a foundational text for modern Wicca. Though the “witch cult thesis” is an evocative and powerful myth for feminism, it might be used by those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

As Hutton argues, “to conservatives and reactionaries, it was initially a way of defending the trials [whilst] liberals, radicals and feminists could reverse these claims, by portraying the pagan witch religion as […] a joyous, life-affirming, liberating one” (2017: 120). The tenacity and ambiguity of the “witch cult” myth spills over into horror cinema and its criticism.

Even Creed repeats the fallacious witch-cult theory as she laments how the image of the witch came to be manipulated into the monstrous figure of popular horror film (1993: 74-5). As well as being false, the revisionist “witch cult” myth draws on a very different stereotype to the cannibalistic, satanic witch that emerged in the Early Modern period: that of the “service magician”.

In that the notion of the “good witch” or “wise woman” popular in feminist revisionism and neo-paganism draws on this alternative typology of “service magician”, it provides a useful counter-image to the misogynist figuration of the witch. However, this counter-image does little to recuperate the figure of the witch more broadly.

As with the image of the ritual magician, the distinction between “service magician” and “witch” is gendered in historical archives, with the latter stereotype being associated with and adhering to the idea of an evil woman. Whilst revisionist myths of witchcraft may borrow from the gender-neutral image of the service magician, this conflation of stereotypes does not address the ways in which the figure of the satanic witch provided, in the Early Modern period, “a kind of human being whom it was not only proper but necessary to hate actively and openly” (Hutton 2017: 23). Arguably, the female witch continues to function as a scapegoat despite the interventions of revisionist storytelling. Certainly, as Creed argues, it is the negative stereotype that tends to perpetuate in horror film.

Key to the development of the evil witch stereotype of the Early Modern period (and beyond) was “a strong distrust of women within male culture” (Hutton 2017: 192). Hutton traces this distrust back to antiquity, showing how the low status of women in ancient cultures commingled with a general hostility to magic associated with women (seen in figures from Greek myth such as Circe, Medea, Medusa and the Stygian witches). Such material was ripe for use in early Christianity’s development of the witch stereotype (51-53, 58-59).

Hutton also suggests the stereotype originates in ancient Rome, which had a strong sense of wicked women as agents of disruption. He concludes that cultures which had defined magic as an illicit activity, and in which women were excluded from political power, merged these aspects into a single stereotype of the menacing Other.

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